The 96 have been whittled down to two of the very best, world No1 Serena Williams and former No1 Victoria Azarenka, both former champions, and two halves of one of the finest current rivalries in women’s tennis.
That their back-stories are also compelling adds a touch more seasoning to the final clash, but in truth, Williams vs Azarenka needs little. For while Williams leads their head-to-head 17-3, all three victories by the woman from Belarus have come in finals, and since she beat Williams in a two-and-a-half-hour thriller to claim the 2013 Doha title, she has taken her rival to three sets in six of eight clashes.
Since 2014, though, the two have not met in a final: Azarenka’s ranking slumped to 48 at the start of 2015 after prolonged foot problems, and her climb back up the rankings by last autumn took a hit again as she picked up a leg injury.
Now, though, with the Brisbane title and a quarter run to the Australian quarters behind her, she arrived in Indian Wells with a seeding of 13—and in the opposite half of the draw to Williams.
The 2012 champion battled past No26 seed Sam Stosur in the fourth round in three sets, and now took on No19 Karolina Pliskova, who beat her in a marathon three-and-three-quarter-hour battle in Brisbane last year.
This, too, would take three sets and some big shot-making from both women to determine the winner. Azarenka fought back from 3-5 in the first set, and from a wave of winners and aces in the second—Pliskova would hit 17 aces in the match—to reach the final, 7-6(1), 1-6, 6-2, after more than two hours.
Azarenka bubbled with pleasure at her run in the tournament: “It’s been a great week, I felt I improved so much. I’ve been working hard and it’s good to see that all that work is paying off… these are the most priceless moments for me.”
The story of Williams and Indian Wells is a long and oft-repeated one: Since winning back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, she would not return for 15 years after she and sister Venus suffered heckling ahead of that second final. She held out the hand of reconciliation last year and has not looked back—to such an extent that sister Venus has now followed her lead.
Last year, Serena reached the semis before withdrawing with a knee injury. This year, she was hot favourite to win her 70th career title, and a record third in Indian Wells. There was certainly little to deflect fans from that prediction, especially after she put out defending champion Simona Halep in straights sets in 68 minutes.
But in Agnieszka Radwanka, WTA Finals champion and world No2 come Monday, Williams had a feisty, crafty and popular opponent. Williams had beaten her in all nine previous matches, including a one-sided battle in the semis of this year’s Australian Open, but this meeting would take an hour and 35 minutes and two tough sets to complete.
Radwanska determined to attack from the outset, broke in the first game, and even had break point for a 4-1 lead. Williams held, converted her first break chance to level it at 4-4, and broke again for the set, 6-4.
Radwanska had chances in the second set, too, recovering from a 0-3 deficit, and then breaking to serve for the set at 6-5. But Williams found a superb running forehand cross-court pass to break straight back, and raced through the tie-break, 7-6(1), with 11 of the last 12 points.
Williams summed up the experience thus: “What a career. I never expected to be here again in Indian Wells, let alone the final. It’s really unbelievable.”
The tournament must feel just as thrilled at the prospect of a final few thought they would ever see.
· Williams is on a 23-1 win-loss run at Indian Wells, and will match Kim Clijsters’ record of 24 if she wins the title. Only Martina Navratilova has a better winning percentage, but with only 10 matches played and won.
· The only previous time Azarenka reached the Indian Wells final, she went on to win the title, having already won Sydney, the Australian Open and Doha—putting together one of the all-time best starts to a season: a 26-run streak.
· Williams is targeting a record third title in Indian Wells: She is already one of only eight to win two.
· This is Azarenka’s first Premier Mandatory final since Beijing 2012, when she went on to lift the trophy.
· Williams (at 34 years 6 months) is the oldest finalist in Indian Wells history, beating Navratilova’s 34 years 5 months in 1991.
· Azarenka is already assured of a rise to No11, and if she wins, she will break the top 10 for the first time since August 2014.
· After Indian Wells, Williams will extend her streak at No1 to 161 weeks, second only to Steffi Graf’s 186. She became the oldest women’s No1 when she last rose to the top in February 2013. She is third on the all-time list with 284 weeks behind Graf’s 377 and Navratilova’s 332.
· By reaching her 35th final, Azarenka has joined Jelena Jankovic in sixth place on the list of current players.